Former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith shuffled from Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday to a life in prison after being found guilty of ordering a 1994 train ambush that killed 13 Cambodians and three Western backpackers.
As the hourlong reading of the court verdict reached its end and Presiding Judge Sok Sethamony made his final round-up of evidence produced during the Dec 12 and Dec 13 trial, 70-year-old Sam Bith asked prison guards for permission to sit as his punishment was delivered.
Point by point, Sok Sethamony disassembled the testimonies of former Khmer Rouge soldiers-turned-witnesses who had vouched that Sam Bith did not order the bloody train attack in Kampot province and the later execution of Australian David Wilson, 29, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, 27.
Delivering his judgment, Sok Sethamony declared that Sam Bith was Khmer Rouge Southwestern Zone commander and responsible for all rebel activity in Kompong Speu, Takeo and Kampot provinces.
“Sam Bith really ordered Nuon Paet to lead forces to attack the train…. Sam Bith intended the attack to kill, injure and kidnap the people and take property from the train. This is the cruel act on innocent people,” Sok Sethamony said.
The judge added that Nuon Paet, the commander of the Phnom Voar rebel base who led the attack, testified that orders were received from Sam Bith’s radio call-sign No 37 ordering the execution of the three backpackers on Sept 28.
Lastly, Sam Bith’s key defense claim that he was in a Thai hospital when the ambush took place was untrue, Sok Sethamony said, noting the hospital had no record of his admission and did not open to the public until later than his claimed attendance as a patient.
“So, Sam Bith, 70 years-old, is punished to one life in jail for conspiring in six crimes,” said Sok Sethamony, who found the elderly rebel guilty of murder, kidnapping, membership of an armed group, robbery, terrorism and destroying public property.
Sam Bith and Nuon Paet were also ordered to jointly pay each of the families of three foreign victim 50 million riel (around $12,500) in compensation. Three Cambodian victims were awarded almost $27,000 in total and the state train company over $5,000, said Ea Sopheap, a lawyer for the family of the one of the Western victims.
If the money is not available, the court has ordered it be collected by auctioning the assets of both men, Ea Sopheap said.
Sam Bith was a lonely figure in the courtroom that was bereft of the supporters, witnesses and relatives who had traveled from different parts of the country to testify at his two-day trial.
Last week’s appearance in court of 77-year-old Khmer Rouge Brother No 2 Nuon Chea—the closest confidant of leader Pol Pot—sparked outrage from genocide researcher Youk Chhang, who shortly after called for travel restrictions on the surviving leaders of the communist regime.
“The verdict is not justice,” a dazed Sam Bith told reporters as he was led from the courtroom to a waiting crush of photographers and TV cameramen. “I will complain to the Appeals Court,” he said.
“I’m delighted,” said British Ambassador Stephen Bridges outside the courtroom.
“I hope, finally now, we can move forward to a final solution to bring justice for the three families of the three young men that were killed,” he said.
Australian Ambassador Louise Hand said the verdict was an outcome her government had long sought.
“It’s a very significant step forward in achieving justice in this case and it is something the Australian government has been working toward for a very long time,” Hand said.
Asked if the prosecution of Sam Bith indicated a greater willingness by Cambodia to prosecute other surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, Hand said “I don’t want to speculate on that, but we are glad with what we got today.”
Sam Bith’s wife Rhem Ry said by telephone that she felt disappointed about the decision “because my husband did not act and did not order others to kill [the backpackers].”
Sam Bith is the highest ranking Khmer Rouge commander to be convicted in a Cambodian court.
Nuon Paet was sentenced in September by the Supreme Court to life in prison for the killings. His Phnom Voar deputy Chhouk Rin was sentenced the same week to life in prison by the Appeal Court of Phnom Penh.
Chhouk Rin is currently mounting a legal challenge to the verdict.